Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sealed search warrant mistakenly released in connection with man’s shooting death on Wilkins Drive

Authorities are investigating the shooting death of a man in upper York County. (WYDaily photo/Courtesy of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office)
Authorities are investigating the shooting death of a man on Wilkins Drive in upper York County. (WYDaily photo/Courtesy of the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office)

New details relating to a homicide investigation in York County have been unintentionally released to the public through a clerical error.

A search warrant filed as part of a homicide investigation was ordered by a judge to be sealed — but was erroneously processed in the York-Poquoson Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.

The search warrant was found by WYDaily during a routine examination of search warrants filed at the courthouse.

York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs said the search warrant, which asks for access to the victim’s social media accounts, was supposed to be filed under seal.

York-Poquoson Circuit Court Clerk Kristen Nelson said her office staff made an error.

WYDaily has been looking into the case of 20-year-old William Mason Worthington, who was shot and killed Dec. 30 at a home in the 1000 block of Wilkins Drive in York County.

Details have been scarce and the sheriff’s office has remained tight-lipped in releasing details regarding motive, nature of the case, or potential suspects. The sheriff’s office has declined to release details to the public multiple times.

The search warrant, originally dated Jan. 1, includes a six-paragraph narrative giving probable cause for the search.

Diggs said releasing those details could result in loss of life or “risk the integrity” of the investigation.

WYDaily has decided to not release case details from the search warrant in this story, but will keep possession of the document for future reference in case details remain scarce from the sheriff’s office.

Shelley Ward, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, confirmed Wednesday there have been no arrests in the case, but again declined to say whether there are any suspects being sought. Ward previously said the shooting was an isolated incident, but has not elaborated.

Diggs, in a prepared statement, classified the case as a “murder investigation,” but did not elaborate whether there is a suspect or suspects pointing to that classification.

By definition, homicide is the killing of one person by another; murder is homicide committed with “malice aforethought,” according to several legal definitions and attorneys’ websites.

“For the WYDaily to publish information from a court document that they obtained through a clerical error and which they know to have been sealed is the worst kind of journalism,” Diggs said in a prepared statement. “The release of information from a sealed document could endanger not only a murder investigation, it could endanger the lives of witnesses.  It could cause a murderer to go free to kill again. This puts the community at risk. I find it irresponsible and unethical. This is the worst kind of journalism and it betrays the trust of the community for the sake of sensationalism.”

Ward declined to answer questions related to the search warrant because “it’s a sealed document.”

How it happened

Nelson, the court clerk, said a copy of the search warrant was issued to WYDaily Tuesday “in error.”

“This is new for us, and I will say this is not typical for our office,” Nelson said. “I’m upset that it has happened.”

The search warrant appears to have been faxed to the clerk’s office from another jurisdiction, Nelson said. The warrant shows it was originally filed Jan. 1 at a different courthouse, then filed again in February in York County.

In the filing process, Nelson said the search warrant was mistakenly placed with other public search warrants, not in a sealed folder like other sealed case files.

Nelson said she spoke with a circuit court judge Wednesday morning, who confirmed the document is “not to be disseminated.”

Nelson confirmed around 11 a.m. Wednesday that the document had been sealed.

The York-Poquoson Circuit Court Clerk’s Office has experienced some turnover and has some newer staff members, Nelson said. She added she is “not so sure (the mistake) is something that couldn’t be an oversight of any of us” employed in the clerk’s office.

In response to the error, Nelson met with her office staff Wednesday morning to “brainstorm” ways to create more checks and balances in her office, including for processing the search warrants.

Clerical staff will now double-check each other’s work to ensure similar mistakes do not happen again, Nelson said, adding that a sealed document has never been accidentally released by her office under her watch until Tuesday.

There will be no disciplinary actions for the staff member responsible for the error, Nelson said.

The clerk’s office has “over 800” responsibilities. Nelson said “as the clerk, the buck stops” with her, but she is unable to monitor every single responsibility — meaning she relies on ensuring “enough checks and balances” are in place to prevent errors.

“I regret that the release of this information was an oversight, and is not typical of my office,” Nelson said in a prepared statement via email. “In response to this coming to light, I have already met with my staff to implement improved procedural measures to assist in avoiding this from happening again.  I offer my sincerest apologies for this oversight.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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